African servants: A long tradition
European courts employed people of African descent between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries. They were often offered as a ‘present’ to a ruler, and fulfilled a variety of roles, such as musician, banner holder, soldier or envoy.
But in most cases they were employed as servants.
Servants with a dark skin tone were seen as an exotic status symbol. In their role as servant, they onderscored the wealth and power of European masters.
They fulfilled an important public role for their employers, for example in theatrical parties and ceremonies. Their presence gave a court an international allure in the theater of power.
Above detail from Portrait of Maria of Orange (1642-1688), With Hendrik van Zuijlenstein and a servant, shows a young African servant holding a horse’s reins. It is a commonly-used motif in painting. This was based on reality: A number of black servants are known to have worked in the stabels.
The boy wears a pearl earring and a fancy dress costume which refers to classical antiquity. The identity of the boy depicted here is unfortunately not known. His gaze is on Maria of Orange, as if he is waiting to see what she will do.
Works of art depicting African servants were almost always commissioned by their lord or lady and depict an unequal power relationship. They show how Europeans wanted to view their foreigh servants: subservient and exotic. In portraits, the servants are mainly depicted as children.
Johanna Charlotte of Anhalt Dessau is one of the granddaughters of Frederik Hendrik of Orange and Amalia of Solms.
This portrait shows Johanna Charlotte with one of her servants. It may well be Leopold, a boy who entered into her service at 7 years of age and had been purchased by her. He served her for sixteen years and was paid a salary. The relation between the two is more intimate than in many other portraits involving African servants. The abbess has an arm around the boy. He in turn does not look at her subserviently, but has his gaze on us. the viewer.
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)
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